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Growing Medicinal Plants: Avocados, Citrus and Sweet Potatoes

Plants have been used for centuries by different cultures for their healing properties. Traditional healers have devised cures for all sorts of everyday health matters using a variety of plant parts. Pharmaceutical companies have tapped into this traditional wisdom as they search for new medicines. Here are three plants known to have medicinal properties that are easy and fun to grow at home. These activities are good for children, both young and old.
The avocado, Persea americana, is native to Mexico and Central America, but is widely cultivated in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. In Mexico, the leaves were traditionally boiled and used in a mixture to treat colds, coughs and menstruation pain. In other parts of the world, avocado is used to combat other health problems such as wounds, sores and dysentery. Cosmetically, avocado oil is often found in soaps and bubble baths.
It is easy to grow your own avocado trees. They will not grow to a size where they would produce fruit, but it is still fun and they make attractive houseplants.
Here is a simple way to grow your own avocado at home:
  • Clean the avocado seed, washing off all the pulp and leaving the brown protective coat undisturbed.
  • Insert three wooden or plastic toothpicks into the seed, spacing them evenly halfway down the seed.
  • Place on a glass, suspended by the toothpicks, with the pointed end facing up and the flat end down.
  • Fill the glass to the brim with water so that half the seed remains out of the water. Refill with water when necessary.
  • Place the jar in a well-lit area, away from direct sunlight.
  • In two to six weeks, when the leaves and the root system are well formed, plant in potting soil. Avocados like good drainage—sharp sand can be added to your potting mix. The soil should never become bone dry, but it should also not be waterlogged or soggy.
  • When planting your avocado, the top of the seed should just peek above the soil level.
  • When the seedling is 12 inches tall, it can be pinched back to 8 inches to produce a fuller plant.
If the avocado seed does not germinate within 45 days, throw it out and try again. Once the roots and leaves begin to grow, do not leave it in water for too long (maximum six weeks) or the roots will start to deteriorate. Avocados can be planted directly in potting soil, but it’s more fun to watch their roots form in water. The seed has the best chance of germinating if it is planted or placed in water immediately.
The lime, Citrus aurantiifolia, originally from southeastern Asia, is cultivated worldwide. Traditionally the juice and leaves have been used for minor complaints such as stomachaches, headaches and diarrhea. The fragrant oil is used in cosmetics, soaps and creams. It is a popular flavoring for beverages, baked goods and many other food products. The seeds are easy to grow into small ornamental house plants.
These directions apply to all citrus fruits:
  • Remove the seeds from the fruit and rinse them thoroughly.
  • Within a day, plant the seeds in potting soil at a depth of ¼ to ½ inch.
  • Place pot on a sunny, warm window sill keeping the soil damp and the seeds will germinate and grow in 1 to 2 weeks. To grow the citrus plant successfully you will need good light.
  • Citrus trees like well-drained soil. Potting soil is fine. Adding a small amount of sharp sand to the mix will improve drainage.
  • As the plant grows, cut off any low branches (under 6 inches) so that one single strong stem develops.
  • If the citrus plant become leggy from lack of light, prune the top back by 1/3. This will stimulate the growth of new branches.
  • Allow citrus plants to dry out between watering. As a rule of thumb, let the top inch of soil dry. This will ensure that the plant does not become water-logged.
  • Fertilize your plant every 2 weeks with a balance fertilizer (10-10-10), following the instructions on the label. It is better to give them less fertilizer than more. There are fertilizers specifically designed for citrus trees, but these are not necessary unless you are trying to grow fruit. When grown from seed, the citrus tree can take as long as 10 years to produce fruit.
Sweet Potato
The sweet potato, Ipomea batatas, provides a great source of the antioxidant beta carotene, which has been linked to preventing heart disease, cataracts, strokes and numerous cancers. Sweet potatoes are also high in vitamins C and E. It bears no relation to the true potato, Solanum tuberosum, and is a member of the morning glory family. In a true potato, the edible part is a tuber (an underground stem) while in the sweet potato the edible part is part of the root of the plant.
Here are easy directions to grow your own sweet potato plant at home:
  • Wash your sweet potato.
  • Insert four toothpicks into the sides of the sweet potato, spacing them evenly 1/3 of the way down the potato. The pointed end of the potato should face downwards.
  • Place the sweet potato in a clean jar (a mayonnaise jar works well), suspended by the toothpicks.
  • Fill the jar half way with non-chlorinated water. (you can let an open container of water sit out overnight to off-gas the chlorine)
  • Add more water, until it is approximately an inch from the top.
  • Keep in a bright location and the potato should start to root in a week and sprout after two weeks.
The sweet potato will produce long windy vines that look like the leaves of a morning glory. As the vines grow, they can be left to trail or trained to climb. If the vines grow too long, they can be cut back by a few inches. This will produce a bushier plant. Once the plant has grown plenty of healthy roots and leaves, you can plant it in potting soil. Your sweet potato can be planted outside in mid- to late-May, once the soil has warmed up and there is no chance of a late frost.

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